Though they spend most of their lives at sea, American shad are nonetheless dependent on the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay every spring. They are the largest of five species of river herring that swim upstream to spawn in freshwater, a fact that once made them easy pickings for nearby residents. Native Americans and European colonists—tipped off to the shad’s return by the blooming of the aptly-named shadbush—would use baskets, nets and traps to catch the fish.
But population growth put more pressure on the species, and the construction of dams and other structures blocked migrations to shad habitat. The 1980s and 90s saw the closure of commercial shad fisheries in Maryland and Virginia.
To see the efforts of shad restoration today, one can simply follow the shad as they make the same upstream migration they always have. First efforts tap into the same seasonal migration. Adult shad are caught just before spawning, and their fertilized eggs are sent to hatcheries to help restock tributaries. Some dams have been removed, while others, like Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River, have implemented fish lifts or other measures to allow shad and other anadromous species to pass. Between 1989 and 2015, more than 3,300 miles of fish passage were opened in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
By 2014, shad numbers in some tributaries had improved significantly. Shad were above targets in the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, though they were less established in the lower James and York and negligible in the upper James and Susquehanna.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and text by Will Parson
Reducing pollution in the Susquehanna River watershed could ease the environmental effects of an essentially full reservoir behind Conowingo Dam, according to a final report from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment (LSRWA) team released today.
For decades, the reservoir behind Conowingo Dam—as well as those behind the Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams—has trapped particles of sediment flowing down the Susquehanna River, along with the nutrients that are often attached. But a draft report from the LSRWA team released in November 2014 indicated this reservoir is full—and the final report upholds these findings: no substantial changes were made to the findings or recommendations of the report between the draft and final phases.
According to the report, the reservoir is trapping smaller amounts of sediment and nutrients and, during large storms, sending more of these pollutants into the Susquehanna River more often. The report indicates that reducing pollution loads, particularly nutrients, upstream of the dam would provide a more effective solution than various strategies for managing sediment at the dam itself, such as dredging or bypassing.
In 2010, the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) was established to reduce nutrient and sediment loads across the watershed. Bay jurisdictions—Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia—and federal agencies are currently in the process of submitting draft two-year water quality goals, or milestones, to achieve the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reduction goals of the TMDL.
The final report is available on the LSRWA website.
The calm, mirror-like surface of Otsego Lake is the subject of history and legend. Nicknamed “Glimmerglass” by James Fenimore Cooper, the author describes the lake in his work The Deerslayer as “a bed of the pure mountain atmosphere compressed into a setting of hills and woods.” The narrow, finger-like lake runs nine miles from north to south, coming to a point at Cooperstown, New York, where it marks the start of the Susquehanna River. Hop into a boat and follow the current, and a winding, 464-mile journey downriver will eventually drop you in the Chesapeake Bay. At first glance, the lake’s tranquil surface may seem humble beginnings for a mighty river that churns billions of gallons of fresh water into the nation’s largest estuary each day. But Otsego is a flurry of activity, home to a rich diversity of critters, habitats and ecosystems.
Alongside the shores of Otsego Lake sits the Biological Field Station, a laboratory that serves the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Oneonta, where researchers work year-round to study and preserve the lake. In 1967, the field station began as a 365-acre donation from the Clark Family Foundation. Now, the field station’s facilities— which include the main laboratory, a farm and boathouse, and various research sites and conserved lands—span more than 2,600 acres. Director Bill Harman, a professor of biology, has led the Biological Field Station for the entirety of its more than 40 year existence. As resident Otsego expert, Harman oversees the monitoring, research, training, workshops and field trips at the field station’s facilities.
Hands-on learning opportunities are abundant across the waters, marshes and forests surrounding Otsego Lake. Field trips, summer internships and general research bring kindergarteners through post-graduates to the field station’s facilities. Students of SUNY Oneonta’s Master of Lake Management program—the first such program in North America—complete their studies at the Biological Field Station, sampling, monitoring and researching the waters of Otsego and other nearby lakes. Local residents and other visitors are also welcome to explore and can participate in lake monitoring alongside the field station’s scientists.
Though located far from the Chesapeake Bay itself, Otsego Lake suffers from many of the same issues threatening the estuary, like nutrient pollution and a rise in invasive species. Zebra mussels and purple loosestrife—two infamous invasive species plaguing the watershed—have overtaken much of the lake and surrounding lands. Once a rich source of shad, herring and eels, downstream dams have blocked many of these fish from migrating to the lake. But Harman and his colleagues don’t see Otsego as a closed system. As they collect their data and monitor the lake, they are actively seeking solutions that could be applied across the region.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Stephanie Smith
Warm weather is upon us, and that means people will be taking to the water to escape from the heat. Soon enough, the Chesapeake Bay will be dotted with bobbing watercrafts of all shapes and sizes. For those recreating on the Bay, the bright yellow Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS) markers may be a familiar sight, but they serve as much more than eye-catching aquatic beacons: they provide key insights into the health and safety conditions of the Bay.
The first buoys were deployed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Chesapeake Bay Office in 2007—marking 10 locations along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Historic Trail—and have been collecting and transmitting real-time water quality and atmospheric data ever since. “It’s [the buoy system] interpretive because we work with the National Park Service as a partner to interpret John Smith’s trail, so there is a bit of a historical aspect to it,” said Katie Kirk, Senior Buoy Specialist at Earth Resources Technology, a contractor that supplies support staff and assistance to NOAA and other government agencies.
“Our main mission is to keep the 10 buoys that we have up and alive and transmitting as often as we can and deliver the data to as many users as we can,” said Kirk in reference to her and the field team’s work. Routine maintenance and repairs on the buoy fleet presents a swath of challenges that keeps the small team of CBIBS buoy technicians busy year-round.
The life of a CBIBS buoy technician differs from day-to-day and can be a physically demanding profession. Some days are spent in their Annapolis, Md., warehouse—affectionately referred to as the ‘buoy spa’—calibrating instruments, cleaning buoys, swapping out parts and working with computer systems. Other times, the team braves the wind, waves and elements to do onsite repairs and buoy maintenance.
As the summer and fall wind down and cold weather approaches, the team removes the three northernmost buoys from the Patapsco, Susquehanna and Upper Potomac rivers before freezing conditions set in to prevent ice damage. But this winter, the southern buoys succumbed to the frigid conditions: wind gusts exceeding 50 miles-per-hour and below-freezing water temperatures caused ice from sea spray to accumulate on and topple over the buoys, something the CBIBS team had never seen before. “The buoys that were off location tipped over, cracked and no longer had power, so we couldn’t track them on the GPS to figure out where they were. That was a pretty intense time trying to figure out where the buoys had moved to and how we could get to them,” explained Kirk.
After winter, the team’s short-term goals were to get all of the buoys repaired, online and transmitting data. With that completed, Kirk is now striving to see the data being analyzed and produced in scientific papers. “It’s been done before, but I want to get back to that and try to reach out to more teachers and researchers and see if they want more buoys or buoys in different locations,” Kirk said. “Then we can take the time and think about how our system reaches out to those users, what they need from us and what they would prefer.”
While many people accessing the data are local sailors and kayakers looking for information on the wind speed, currents, wave heights and local conditions before venturing out on the water, educators also integrate the data into their curriculum. Utilizing the data for educational purposes is of utmost importance to NOAA, so much so that they have an entire education team dedicated to reaching out to local schools to demonstrate how the CBIBS data can be used in the classroom.
In addition to live reporting of local water and weather conditions, the buoy data provides a snapshot into what is happening around the Bay, demonstrating in a quantitative way how each part of the ecosystem is interrelated. Information on water temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen can help researchers uncover important linkages between water quality and blue crab stocks, fish populations, bay grass abundance and more.
Despite the many challenges that the buoy technicians face, Kirk and her team exude an air of passion and commitment to maintaining the instruments that provide the most up-to-date information about the state of the Bay, all in the name of presenting the best science. For those working to restore the estuary and those interested in learning about the issues the Bay faces, the data can serve as a useful tool.
“I think we have an amazing opportunity to protect this watershed and this bay,” said Kirk. “It goes back to resources and taking pride in where you live. This is your home, why wouldn’t you protect it?”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Video and images by Will Parson
Text by Jenna Valente
Before the Susquehanna River meets the Chesapeake Bay, before it churns through Conowingo Dam, and before it winds through the farmlands of Pennsylvania, it begins its 464-mile journey with a calm exit from Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, New York. Every Memorial Day weekend, an assortment of canoe and kayak paddlers share the first 70 miles of that journey, taking in the green landscape of central New York during the General Clinton Canoe Regatta.
This year, over 200 vessels entered the full course from Cooperstown to Bainbridge, with most holding two or more paddlers. Entrants came from across the country, and Canada was also well represented — English and French could be heard throughout the race. Paddlers shouted as they portaged their vessels past spectators at three dams. Support crews cheered while making quick, timesaving handoffs of energy drinks and food. Shallow water following a dry spring season may have slowed things down this year, but the racers remained focused, and the leading professional team still finished in less than eight hours.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images and text by Will Parson.
Sediment building up behind Conowingo Dam has almost reached the reservoir’s capacity for storage, according to a report released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The reservoir is considered at its limit for holding sediment when it is half full—at present, it is 92 percent of the way toward this maximum.
Since its construction in 1929, the Conowingo reservoir, along with the reservoirs behind the Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams, has trapped sediment and nutrients as they flow down the Susquehanna River—which provides nearly half of the fresh water that flows into the Bay. According to the report, the ability of these reservoirs to trap pollutants has been steadily declining.
“Storage capacity in Conowingo reservoir continues to decrease, and ultimately that means more nutrients and sediment will flow into the Bay,” said Mike Langland, author of the study, in a release. “Understanding the sediments and nutrients flowing into the Bay from the Susquehanna River is critical to monitoring and managing the health of the Bay.”
Excess sediment can cloud the water and harm underwater grasses, fish and shellfish, while nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms and the creation of low-oxygen “dead zones,” which suffocate underwater life. Reducing the amount of pollutants in local waterways is integral to Bay restoration efforts, including the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or “pollution diet,” which Bay Program partners recommitted to achieving as part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. In anticipation of a decline in Conowingo reservoir’s ability to trap sediment, the TMDL includes a mechanism for addressing any increases in nutrient and sediment pollution caused by a full reservoir.
The report from USGS reiterates the findings of a study by the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment (LSRWA) team, released in November 2014, which found that the once-effective “pollution gate” is trapping smaller amounts of sediment and nutrients and, during large storms, sending more of these pollutants into the Susquehanna River more often. The team found that reducing pollution loads upstream of the dam would pose a more effective solution that dredging, bypassing or other operational changes, which would come with high costs and low or short-lived benefits.
The USGS report, Sediment Transport and Capacity Change in Three Reservoirs, Lower Susquehanna River Basin, Pennsylvania and Maryland 1900–2012, is available online.
A team of scientists has found that reducing pollution in the Susquehanna River watershed—which includes portions of New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland—could ease the environmental effects of an “essentially full” reservoir behind the Conowingo Dam, whose pollution-trapping capacity has diminished in recent years.
The reservoir behind the Conowingo Dam—as well as those behind the Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams—has for decades trapped particles of sediment flowing down the Susquehanna River, as well as the nutrients that are often attached. But according to research from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment (LSRWA) team, this reservoir is full. The once-effective “pollution gate” is trapping smaller amounts of sediment and nutrients and, during large storms, sending more of these pollutants into the Susquehanna River more often.
While researchers explored strategies for managing sediment at the dam, the team found that reducing pollution loads upstream of the dam would pose a more effective solution to the “full reservoir” problem. Indeed, dredging, bypassing or other operational changes would come with high costs and low or short-lived benefits. But adhering to the Chesapeake Bay’s “pollution diet”—and taking additional steps to reduce pollution where possible—would offer management flexibility and environmental benefits.
The Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) was established in 2010 to reduce nutrient and sediment loads across the watershed. Lowering these pollutants is integral to restoring the health of the Bay: excess sediment can cloud the water and harm underwater grasses, fish and shellfish, and nutrients can fuel the growth of harmful algae blooms. While the LSRWA team did find that the effects of the sediment that “scour” from the Conowingo reservoir cease once it settles to the bottom of the river, the effects of nutrient pollution linger. Green infrastructure, forest buffers and sound farm and lawn management can help businesses, landowners and individuals contribute to a restored Chesapeake.
Scientists have found intersex fish in three Pennsylvania river basins, indicating hormone-disrupting chemicals are more widespread in the Chesapeake Bay watershed than once thought.
Image courtesy RTD Photography/Flickr
Intersex conditions occur when pesticides, pharmaceuticals or other chemicals disrupt the hormonal systems of an animal, leading to the presence of both male and female characteristics. The presence of intersex conditions in fish, frogs and other species is linked to land use, as the chemicals that lead to these conditions often enter rivers and streams through agricultural runoff or wastewater.
Previous samplings of fish in the region have found intersex conditions in the Potomac, Shenandoah and Susquehanna rivers, as well as lakes and ponds on the Delmarva Peninsula. On samplings conducted at 16 sites between 2007 and 2010, researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found intersex fish in the Susquehanna, Delaware and Ohio river basins.
According to the USGS, freshwater fish called white suckers from sample sites in the Delaware and Susquehanna river basins had a yolk precursor in their blood. Male smallmouth bass from all sample sites had immature eggs in their testes. The prevalence of intersex fish was highest in the Susquehanna river basin, which researchers attribute to the higher rate of farms—and related herbicides, pesticides and hormone-containing manure—in the area. While scientists found no relationship between the number of wastewater treatment plants in an area and the prevalence of immature eggs in fish, the severity of intersex conditions did rise at sites downstream from wastewater discharge points.
“The sources of estrogenic chemicals are most likely complex mixtures from both agricultural sources, such as animal wastes, pesticides and herbicides, and human sources from wastewater treatment plant effluent and other sewer discharges,” said fish biologist Vicki Blazer in a media release.
A habitat is the natural environment in which plants, animals and other organisms live, feed and breed. Many habitats are shared by numerous living things, forming what is called an ecosystem. Ecosystems range in size and can be as tiny as a patch of dirt or as large as the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Sometimes, different species within the same ecosystem are forced to compete for resources like food, water and shelter. Dominant species and environmental stressors can take their toll on lesser plants and animals.
Rapidly increasing human development contributes to this environmental stress: as our population rises, so does our demand for the same resources that many plants and animals also depend on to survive. We build dams to control stream flow and capture energy, develop wilderness into urban hubs and use our finite freshwater resources at an alarming rate.
Migratory fish are particularly sensitive to ecosystem changes because they rely on certain migration routes between connected habitats to reach their breeding grounds. Dams, road culverts and other blockages that fragment waterways can act as barriers to fish passage.
In an effort to better understand the effect that dams and other manmade structures have on fish passage, Steve Minkkinen, project leader at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Maryland Fisheries Office, has teamed up with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a 10-year survey of American eel populations in the Susquehanna River.
“We learned quite a bit in 2013. We collected 300,000 juveniles [eels] and transported them above the [Conowingo] Dam. The dam has been blocking the [eels’] migration up the Susquehanna River,” Minkkinen explained. “There has been a lot of work [to open] upstream passage for shad and river herring,” Minkkinen continued. But that work has only focused on adult fish, and as Minkkinen pointed out, the dam’s flow is too fast for younger eels to travel through.
Monitoring American eels is important: at historic levels, they made up 20 percent of the freshwater biomass along the Eastern seaboard. However, the introduction of dams and other structures has blocked eel populations from important migration routes, changing eel populations.
Researchers capture and inject chips known as passive integrated transponders, or PIT tags, into the eels. These tags can be detected in future surveys and help the team track eel populations by letting them know if they are encountering a new eel or one that was caught during a previous survey.
The American eel is the only catadromous fish in the Bay region, which means they spend most of their lives in fresh water but migrate to the ocean to spawn. Spawning takes place in late January when the fish swim out of the Bay and into the Sargasso Sea, a portion of the Atlantic Ocean east of the Bahamas.
Eel larvae drift in ocean currents for nine to 12 months before reaching fresh water and swimming upstream. Monitoring allows scientists to study the migration habits of juvenile eels and learn how to aid their upstream journey.
Minkkinen and his team believe that if fish passage to the upper Susquehanna opens, both American eels and freshwater mussels would thrive. This bivalve relies on fish to store their eggs in their gills until the mussels turn into microscopic juveniles and drop off. Mussel populations in the upper Susquehanna are, for the most part, comprised of older, larger individuals. Because mussels are natural filter feeders, Minkkinen’s team believes that a rise in freshwater mussels will lead to cleaner water and a healthier ecosystem.
“Our hopes are that we can develop passage and restore eel and mussel habitat to that [upper Susquehanna] portion of the watershed,” Minkkinen said.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter. Captions by Jenna Valente.
Over the past decade, smallmouth bass in five Chesapeake Bay tributaries have suffered from fish kills and perplexing illnesses—and nutrient pollution could be to blame.
According to a new report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), excess nitrogen and phosphorous in our rivers and streams could be behind two of the leading problems affecting smallmouth bass: first, the rapid growth of fish parasites and their hosts, and second, the expansion of large algae blooms that can lead to low-oxygen conditions and spikes in pH. When paired with rising water temperatures and ever more prevalent chemical contaminants, nutrient pollution seems to have created a “perfect storm” of factors that are making smallmouth bass more susceptible to infections and death.
Image courtesy Mr. OutdoorGuy/Flickr
In a media call, CBF President Will Baker called the smallmouth bass “the canary in the coal mine for the Bay’s rivers.” Because the fish is sensitive to pollution, problems within the population could indicate problems within the Bay.
Smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna, Monocacy, Shenandoah, Cowpasture and South Branch of the Potomac rivers have seen a string of recent health problems, from open sores and wart-like growths to abnormal sexual development. In the Susquehanna, smallmouth bass populations have plummeted so far that Pennsylvania has made it illegal to catch the fish during spawning season.
“Our fish are sick, our anglers are mad and my board and I—protectors of our [smallmouth bass] fishery—are frustrated,” said John Arway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “Our bass, and our grandchildren who will fish for them, are depending on us to fix the problem.”
Image courtesy CBF
While specific causes of smallmouth bass fish kills and illnesses remain unclear, CBF has called on state and local governments to accelerate their pollution-reduction efforts in hopes of improving water quality and saving the driving force behind a $630 million recreational fishing industry. The non-profit has also called on the federal government to designate a 98-mile stretch of the Susquehanna as impaired, which would commit Pennsylvania to reversing the river’s decline.
“This is the moment in time to save fishing in our streams and rivers, as well as the jobs and quality of life that are connected to it,” Baker said.
Sediment reservoirs near the mouth of the Susquehanna River are filling up faster than researchers expected, posing a new obstacle for improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
As the holding areas behind the lower Susquehanna's three dams reach capacity, their ability to trap upriver sediment and the phosphorous that is often attached wanes, and the sediment that is held grows more and more likely to flow out of the reservoirs and into the river.
According to a report released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), strong storms, severe flooding and faster-moving water have turned the one-time pollutant blockers into less effective gates.
The Susquehanna delivered more phosphorous and sediment into the Bay last year than it has in more than three decades of monitoring. The past 15 years have seen a 55 percent increase in phosphorous entering the Bay from the river and a 97 percent increase in sediment. And while nitrogen flow has dropped, it shows a jump during large storms--like Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 or Hurricane Ivan in 2004--and the flooding that follows.
Excess nutrients and sediment can harm fish, shellfish and underwater grasses. Nitrogen and phosphorous fuel the growth of algae blooms that rob water of oxygen and, with suspended sediment, cloud the water and block the sunlight that plants need to grow.
A previous USGS report cited improvements in nutrient and sediment trends as a sign of improving Bay health. The USGS has seen significant reductions in nutrient and sediment concentrations upstream of the reservoirs, which reflect the positive impacts of conservation efforts in the Susquehanna watershed. But the filling reservoirs behind the Safe Harbor and Holtwood dams in Pennsylvania and the Conowingo Dam in Maryland overshadow the pollution reduction progress that is being made.
The Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment team, composed of federal, state and regional partners and administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is exploring ways to expand the reservoirs' capacity.
Just north of the Mason-Dixon line, the North and South branches of the 17-mile-long Muddy Creek transverse farm lands and orchards, and in some places, wild trout flourish. The two forks meet at an old railroad village appropriately named Muddy Creek Forks. The settlement was once a bustling industrial hub along the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad, but today, restored general stores and railroad tracks take visitors to a time when “workin’ on the railroad” was a way of life. Take a tour of the town’s historic buildings – structures with names like “milk collection building” and “coal bins” that have escaped the modern vocabulary.
(Image courtesy Bruce E. Hengst, Sr./Flickr)
As the creek flows through York County’s Peach Bottom and Lower Chanceford Township, its character shifts from an agricultural stream to that of a mountain river, decorated with huge boulders, flat pools, mountain laurel, and hemlock groves.
Locals spend hot summer days in the swimming holes along this section of Muddy Creek. Unfortunately, more of these swimming holes are being closed down each year due to illegal dumping violations and the threat this poses to human health.
Other outdoor enthusiasts choose to hike along the a section of the Mason Dixon Trail, which begins at the intersection of Muddy Creek and Paper Mill Road and goes to the Susquehanna River. Paddlers enjoy this section of the creek, particularly in the early spring, when the entire stretch is canoeable.
Trout fishermen from all over the country flock to Muddy Creek. A two-mile Delayed Harvest section between Bruce and Bridgeton is particularly poplar. Still others speak about the scenery between Woodbine and Castle Fin, a section of the creek only accessible via the old railroad bed.
Muddy Creek meets the Susquehanna River north of the Conowingo Dam, shortly before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
The National Park Service, with support of five states, has designated four rivers – the Susquehanna, Chester, upper Nanticoke and upper James – as new sections of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
(Image courtesy Michael Land/National Park Service)
Recognition of these connecting waterways adds 841 miles to the 3,000-mile-long trail and underscores their significance to the history, cultural heritage and natural resources of the Chesapeake region.
Joel Dunn, executive director of Chesapeake Conservancy said, “These [connecting] trails provide a focus around which communities can engage in efforts to increase recreational use of the Chesapeake's great rivers and protect the river corridors and landscapes. This kind of conservation helps communities celebrate their history and culture, protect wildlife habitat, and protect lands that have unique ecological values.”
The designation comes after considerable collaboration between the National Park Service, the five states through which these rivers flow, numerous American Indian tribes and strong support of the conservation community. The National Park Service will work closely with these partners to provide technical and financial assistance, manage resources, enhance facilities, and mark and promote interpretive routes along the connecting trails.
Visit the Chesapeake Conservancy’s website to learn more about these new rivers and the entire Smith Trail.
Once bustling with flour mills, furniture factories and dye shops, Towanda, Pennsylvania’s industrial feel differs from the quaint, historic atmosphere of Annapolis, Maryland. And with 246 miles between the two cities, it’s easy to forget they’re both part of the same Chesapeake Bay watershed.
(Image courtesy Slideshow Bruce/Flickr)
Towanda, located in northeastern Pennsylvania, is considered the southernmost point of the upper Susquehanna watershed, an area that drains into the headwaters of the Susquehanna River. The 7,500-square-mile region between Towanda and Morrisville, New York, contains more miles of streams than roads.
This is the region where the Upper Susquehanna Coalition (USC) works to enhance water quality and protect natural resources. The 19 soil and conservation districts that make up USC understand that enhancing the Susquehanna’s headwaters (where a stream or river begins) is critical to restoring the Chesapeake Bay. If the water flowing into the Susquehanna River is not clean from the start, it certainly won’t get cleaner as it passes through riverside towns including Binghamton, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Harrisburg and Havre de Grace.
What does USC do?
USC is developing environmentally and economically sustainable agriculture projects that empower family farmers while implementing conservation practices such as agricultural fencing that prevents animal waste from entering streams.
Stream corridor rehabilitation
Stream rehabilitation projects improve a stream’s health and habitat potential. Forest buffer plantings along stream banks hold soil in place, keep streams cool and reduce flooding. Stream bank erosion prevention measures reduce the amount of sediment that flows into a stream and eventually the Bay.
Because wetland plants can retain water during heavy rainstorms, restoring and enhancing wetlands is an important step to reduce flooding. Wetlands also provide wildlife habitat and reduce pollution by absorbing and filtering out harmful sediment and nutrients.
(Image courtesy AllianceForTheBay/Flickr)
More from the upper Susquehanna basin:
Though the final figures on the overall health of the Bay’s underwater grasses won’t be available for a few months, in late November, scientists with the Chesapeake Bay Program’s (CBP’s) team that monitors the abundance of the Bay’s grasses had a pleasant surprise. Aerial survey images of the vast grass-filled Susquehanna Flats, the circular area where the Susquehanna River meets the Bay, were not pictures of devastation as was feared, but pictures of health, showing that these valuable Bay habitats survived the fall’s deluge of runoff and sediment better than expected.
During Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, experts out monitoring the effects of these storms noted large tangles of all varieties of uprooted Bay grasses floating downstream. Based on these visual accounts and their knowledge of the devastation that events such as Tropical Storm Agnes wrought on the Bay’s grass beds almost forty years ago, hopes among scientists were not high for these habitats, which are a critical food source for over-wintering waterfowl at this time of year and that are vital as shelter for juvenile Bay creatures in the spring.
“We were incredibly surprised at how much of the grass bed remained on the Flats,” says Robert Orth of Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS) and leader of the team that conducts the annual survey of Bay grasses. “While we did see some declines along the flanks and edges of that big bed, my gut feeling says next year should be ok for grass beds up there. And the fact that we are now seeing overwintering waterfowl in our photographs is a good sign that lots of food is available.”
CBP’s Associate Director for Science Rich Batiuk commented, “Back on those days of Tropical Storm Lee, looking at the deluge of water over the Conowingo Dam, I would’ve bet that we had lost the Flats grasses entirely. Their survival is a good example of how large, dense beds can survive extreme conditions and another indicator of the Bay’s resilience.”
Compare the underwater grass beds on the Susquehanna Flats in VIMS aerial photographs in 2010 and 2011 at http://thumper-web.vims.edu/bio/sav/wordpress/archives/1458
The story of upstate New York's Cayuta Creek begins as all good stories do: once upon a time, when – according to local folklore – a young and talented princess named Kayutah was born into a local Seneca tribe. Kayutah was so extraordinary that one of the neighboring tribes kidnapped her. Her devastated mother cried so many tears that they filled the entire valley, creating what is now known as Cayuta Lake.
(Image courtesy Chris Waits/Flickr)
Cayuta Lake, known locally as Little Lake, drains north to south instead of south to north, just like the nearby Finger Lakes. It empties into the 40-mile-long Cayuta Creek, which meanders south before emptying into the Susquehanna River. Cayuta Lake’s waters, or “Kayuta's tears," travel some 300 miles south before reaching the Chesapeake Bay!
Although the aforementioned legend affirms that the lake was born out of sadness, the surrounding region is now a favorite of outdoor enthusiasts and vacationers alike. Like most of the region’s small lakes, Cayuta Lake completely freezes during the winter, offering opportunities for ice skating, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. There have even been reports of people racing their cars on the lake – although we don’t endorse that idea!
Cayuta Lake and the surrounding areas provide a pristine habitat for rare plants and animals. The best example is a freshwater sponge (Spongilla) that is so sensitive to pollution and human disturbances that the only other place in the world it can be found is Siberia! The sponge lives in the Cayuta Inlet, an area known as the James W. and Helene D. Allen Preserve that’s a favorite study spot of Cornell University students. These sponges are the only food source for the Spongilla fly, a rare insect.
And where there are insects, there are also...fly fishermen! Freshwater trout are abundant in Cayuta Lake and Cayuta Creek. But if you don't want to get in the water, the Finger Lakes Trail provides the perfect opportunity to view this scenic stream. The trail runs from Watkins Glen State Park over State Route 228, and follows Cayuta Creek for miles south. Rumor has it that spring is the best time for hikers, as Watkins Glen is home to rare native flowers and ferns. Not to mention the park's magnificent gorge, rapids and waterfalls, formed by glaciers during the last Ice Age.
(Image courtesy She Who Shall Not Be Named/Flickr)
There are plenty of other natural areas surrounding Cayuta Lake and Cayuta Creek. Here are some of my favorites:
Every summer of my childhood, I dug for crayfish, collected rocks and even searched for treasure in Paxton Creek, a stream that ran through my neighborhood park in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Little did I know that this stream flowed into the Susquehanna River, a tributary of the nation’s largest estuary. Reflecting on these childhood experiences, I realize that Paxton Creek may have been where I first cultivated my affection for the natural world.
(Image courtesy Artman1122/Flickr)
Soon after beginning at the Bay Program, I discovered the Paxton Creek Watershed and Education Association (PCWEA), a volunteer organization that’s working to restore this stream and cultivate a new generation of environmentalists as they comb its waters for crayfish.
As its name suggests, PCWEA’s mission is more than “science”; the organization places just as much emphasis on creating environmental education opportunities and fostering community relationships.
PWCEA’s projects range from a community-wide Crayfish Crawl to control the invasive rusty crayfish to a tour of stormwater best management practices that neighborhoods, schools and localities have adopted to help reduce pollution. Because Paxton Creek flows from rural areas in the headwaters (near Blue Mountain) to the city of Harrisburg, PCWEA volunteers have the opportunity to work at the interface of urban, suburban and rural environments.
Paxton Creek’s biggest threat is pressures from development, which has inundated the upper portion of the watershed since PCWEA was established in 2001. The creek’s upland portions flow through Harrisburg’s suburbs – areas that were once farms and woodlands. Even since I left the area in 2005, abandoned fields and wooded lots have been converted into gas stations, housing developments and shopping centers. Sure, this means that many of the secret hideouts of my childhood have disappeared, but it also means that there are more roads, parking lots and buildings. These paved, or impervious, surfaces do not allow stormwater to soak into the ground; instead, it flows into storm drains, carrying oil, pet waste and other pollutants along with it.
But just because PCWEA doesn’t like impervious surfaces doesn’t mean that the group is against development. Instead, it views the changing land use patterns and rapidly increasing population as an opportunity to promote sustainable growth and influence new residents to install beneficial landscaping techniques.
“There are modes of development that can achieve satisfactory runoff infiltration with less impervious surface,” E. Drannon Buskirk writes in PCWEA’s latest newsletter.
PCWEA has partnered with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to showcase best management practices already implemented in the creek’s 27-square-mile watershed. Residents can view rain gardens, rain barrels and conservation landscaping examples, or they can take an online tour of the sites.
In case you’d rather see the other end of the spectrum, PCWEA has compiled a driving and online tour of “hot spots”: streamside areas that are eroding and contributing sediment pollution to the creek.
PCWEA seeks to reduce impervious surfaces and sediment pollution, but it is also interested in involving the community’s 60,000 stakeholders in community greening projects.
My favorite PCWEA project: A streamside tree nursery
PCWEA has a streamside tree nursery in my old neighborhood park, Shutt Mill Park. Community members work together to maintain the nursery.
These trees keep the soil in place, preventing sediment pollution from clouding the creek. Also, their roots absorb rainwater, which reduces flooding and stormwater runoff. And as these trees mature, they will provide habitat for wildlife and shade the creek, keeping water temperatures cool.
Do you live near Paxton Creek? Get involved today!
There are plenty of opportunities for people to help restore and protect Paxton Creek, such as tabling at the Dauphin County Wetlands Festival, leading youngsters in creek explorations, and implementing sustainable landscaping practices on your own property.
(Image courtesy Paxton Creek Watershed and Education Association)
Contact PCWEA for more information on how you can help Paxton Creek.
Plumes of sediment were observed flowing down the Susquehanna River into the Chesapeake Bay this week after the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee brought heavy rainfall to Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The large rainfall totals caused rivers to swell, washing dirt and pollution off the land and carrying it downstream to the Bay. Record flooding and water levels were recorded at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River last week.
Image courtesy NASA/GSFC/MODIS
Four monitoring reports by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) show both good and poor results for the health of the Susquehanna River and its tributaries. The reports focus on the Susquehanna River and other large rivers; the West Branch Susquehanna Subbasin; the Lackawanna River; and streams that cross the New York-Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania-Maryland state lines.
Researchers with the Susquehanna Large River Assessment Project found fairly good water quality at the eight stations they assessed in the upper and middle Susquehanna subbasins and the Chemung River, located between Sidney, N.Y., and Towanda, Pa. Four of the sites were designated as “non-impaired,” while three sites were slightly impaired and one site was moderately impaired. Only 4.5 percent of the water quality values exceeded their respective limits.
During the Middle Susquehanna Subbasin Year-2 Survey, researchers studied water quality in the Middle Susquehanna Subbasin, focusing on the Lackawanna River watershed. In particular, SRBC examined the effects of stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows on the health of the Lackawanna River and its tributaries. Researchers found that during storms, nutrients and suspended solids often exceeded water quality standards. Some of this pollution was likely due to the introduction of human sewage from combined sewer overflows.
Abandoned mine drainage, followed by pollution from air deposition, was the most prevalent pollution issue found during the West Branch Susquehanna Subbasin Year-1 Survey. Researchers collected samples at 141 sites and found that the percentage of impaired streams in this subbasin continued to be higher than in other parts of the Susquehanna River basin.
During the Assessment of Interstate Streams in the Susquehanna River Basin, researchers found that streams crossing the New York-Pennsylvania state line most frequently exceeded aluminum and iron standards. Many Pennsylvania-Maryland state line streams, which are located in a heavily agricultural region, had high nutrient concentrations.
The monitoring results are included in four technical reports, which are available on SRBC's website.
The Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) has released the first-ever State of the Susquehanna report, which details successes, partnerships, threats and opportunities for seven key indicators influencing the Susquehanna River basin’s health.
The State of the Susquehanna includes data, maps, feature stories and other information that tells the story of the Susquehanna River basin. The report also highlights how the seven indicators relate to the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
The seven indicators in the State of the Susquehanna are:
“Despite gradual improvements, the Susquehanna will continue to experience enormous pressure, calling for additional research, including on potential impacts from the development of natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale on the watershed, especially in its headwaters areas,” said Dr. Benjamin Hayes, director of the Susquehanna River Initiative, Bucknell Environmental Center.
Along with Bucknell University, other partners in the State of the Susquehanna include the U.S. EPA Region 3 and the Susquehanna River Heartland Coalition for Environmental Studies.
A crew of about a dozen biologists from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Frostburg University and Marshall University spent an October afternoon searching for the Maryland darter, a fish that was last seen in 1988 and is feared to be extinct. Though their search proved unsuccessful, biologists are not giving up hope.
The Maryland darter, a 2- to 3-inch long fish, was last seen by Dr. Richard Raesly of Frostburg University in 1988. The fish has historically been found in just three Maryland streams near the mouth of the Susquehanna River. Using new technology, Dr. Raesly worked with Tom Jones of Marshall University to sample the river bottom at Susquehanna State Park.
The crew of biologists divided into two teams that worked with two large seine nets to try to catch the darter. One person on each team wore a backpack with an electric shocker that could send a current into the water in a 3-foot radius. The electric current does not harm fish; it only stuns them so biologists can easily gather them in the seine net for an accurate sample of the stream.
Pulling up the net, the team members sifted through leaves, sediment and other creatures in search of the Maryland darter. But no luck. Once an area had been sampled, the team moved downstream to continue the search.
Scientists involved with the project all gave the same answer as to why it is important to find the darter, particularly now: biodiversity.
DNR biologist Scott Stranko explained that just as the entire world is becoming more socially homogenized, the environment is undergoing the same kind of transformation, with just a few species that are found everywhere.
“All the streams are looking very much the same and we’re losing that specialness,” Stranko said. “While Maryland has been losing native stream species, we’ve gained widespread non-native species like carp and snakeheads that can be found all over the world. If this trend continues, no streams will be special like the Maryland darter streams once were.”
The livelihood of small species such as the darter also speaks volumes about the health of the tributaries that lead to the Chesapeake Bay. Since the Maryland darter was last seen in 1988, development has boomed in the areas surrounding Susquehanna State Park. In this landscape of overdevelopment, just a small amount of concrete or asphalt near the river’s freshwater streams is all it takes to create enough polluted runoff to harm underwater life. Biologists believe this is the main cause of the disappearance of the darter.
The fear that the Maryland darter is extinct still looms in the biologists’ minds. But they are hopeful that new technology and the largest search effort in decades will help them rediscover this rare fish.
The team will trawl the Susquehanna River once again on November 6-8 to continue the search. For more information about the Maryland darter, visit DNR’s website.